The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Harmony without harm: UI Student Orchestra demands better leadership, removal of director


**Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual harassment.**

**Sources have elected to remain anonymous.**


In a fret of meetings, petitioning and discussions these past few weeks, members of the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, along with other School of Music students, staff, faculty and community members, have begun what they hope to be the end of a year-long process to demand the removal of Dr. Carolyn Watson from her position as the Director of Orchestras.

“The teaching assistants and students of the School of Music have endured relentless bullying, abuse, harassment, manipulation and retaliation under the baton of Dr. Carolyn Watson,” UIUC Musicians for a Better Orchestra stated in their latest press release.

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Before Watson was hired into the position two years ago, she had resigned from the University of Kansas following alleged gender discrimination from the KU administration toward her. Upon her arrival in Illinois, she was immediately given tenure — a status typically awarded to educators who have completed four consecutive school terms but can be expedited through portable tenure. Ahead of both employments, Watson led, directed and collaborated on several orchestras and programs worldwide, receiving notable awards

Her resume and rank as tenured staff have and will pose complications for any efforts to request her dismissal from the position.

“For over a year, multiple students have tried to go through university channels to correct this abusive behavior, including Title IX, Human Resources, Office of Access and Equity and two School of Music Directors,” according to the UISO’s official petition website and statements to The Daily Illini. “Attempts have led to nothing.”

Since before her hire, students and faculty have had concerns regarding Watson’s reputation and teaching style. Many participants in these efforts are former students of Watson from her time at KU.

“I heard that the director of an orchestra had been hired from a school that I was familiar with,” a graduate student said. “I knew that the quality of the orchestra was pretty low and I was surprised to hear that she had been hired here.”

According to those who have performed under her at Illinois, her reputation has rung true and then some.

“She used her power as a conductor to humiliate and intimidate students who disagreed with her musical interpretations or program decisions,” an undergraduate representative of the UIUC Musicians for a Better Orchestra student said in a statement to The DI via Reddit. “(She) is currently taking action against one of our School of Music directors for standing up for us and working with us to try and correct this situation.”

Dr. Watson has failed to address any claims publicly or directly to the DI.

On April 30, as an official first step in a process that has been in flux since last spring, orchestra musicians, along with other School of Music students, staff and faculty, gathered in the Krannert Center for Performing Arts to march a petition with over 500 signatures — 84% of the orchestra — collected in one week to the dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts, Kevin Hamilton.

The petition outlines the “significant incompetence” observed under Dr. Watson’s leadership, including exploiting and retaliating against teaching assistants.

“Dr. Watson has consistently failed to do the work to effectively run her programs, forcing her TAs to pick up her slack and work 40+ hours a week on top of their academics,” said an undergraduate student in an announcement on Reddit. “She has responded to TAs and administration who disagree with her by retaliation. This includes unfair grading practices and semester reviews, and comments made to prospective students and colleagues framing her TAs as bad students and difficult to work with.”

These labor grievances have been filed through the Graduate Employee’s Organization, a union for teaching and graduate assistants.

This was but a quarter of the concerns brought up in the petition. Watson has also been claimed to promote a harmful and unsafe learning environment.

“She gave musicians s— for managing injuries like tendinitis and carpal tunnel,” said another student in a statement to The DI via Reddit. 

Her communication practices have been seen as disrespectful in the classroom, in emails and directly to individuals.

“What should have been a ‘Hey, welcome to Illinois, these are the people to contact’ type email, which she did include, was followed with, ‘although they’re not very good,’ criticizing their musicianship, their personalities, their personal lives — anything that she could grab at, she was putting in that email,” said a faculty member during the march regarding an email sent to an incoming doctoral student.

These communications teetered past disrespectful, earning the term “disgusting” from orchestra members.

“She has made multiple sexually suggestive comments to me and invited me for one-on-one time,” said a student in a statement to The DI via Reddit. “With an indication that I could get a more prominent chair by sleeping with her.”

In a similar but otherwise unrelated situation, Dr. Watson, in response to a student’s rejection, “made comments to prospective students and colleagues in an attempt to frame (the student) as a villain and as someone who has ‘difficulty working with women,’” per a statement made by an undergraduate representative of UIUC Musicians for a Better Orchestra to DI via Reddit.

In addition to the unbecoming descriptions of her character, the petitioners and signees stressed the inefficient artistic practices of Watson.

“I spent two semesters in rehearsals with her and she never once made anything deeper out of the music,” a graduate student expressed while participating in the march. “There was never any emotion put into it.”

Her technical skills and abilities as an educator allegedly fall short as well. According to the petition, Watson lacks preparation, does not teach efficiently and as a conductor, ambiguates her hand gestures.

“I’ve heard that she has joked about not studying or preparing for rehearsals,” the same student said. “Her conducting was never very clear or prepared.”

Among a heap of unfavorable opinions, some of Watson’s pupils of orchestras’ past have taken with them fond memories but remain sympathetic.

“I played under Dr. Watson’s leadership about 10 years ago and only had pleasant experiences with her,” said a former student of Watson’s in a statement to The DI via Reddit. “I’m really sad to hear that she is abusing her power now in this position.”

While Dean Hamilton was not on campus to receive the petition in hand, the march did bear fruit. 

On May 8, UIUC Musicians for a Better Orchestra, alongside labor representatives from the Graduate Employees’ Organization, met with Hamilton and other leaders across the FAA. During the meeting, a list of demands was shared as well as the consequences if these demands were not met.

Dean Hamilton and his administration reviewed the petition and supplemental material and requested a follow-up meeting on Tuesday, May 14. In this meeting, Hamilton provided further information on the University’s due process and grievance offices but was unable to meet any of the students’ demands.

At the time of this release, the petition for Dr. Watson’s removal has amassed over 1,000 signatures. As a supplementary measure, a 41-page Title IX report is in the process of being filed.

This process may see further delay as the College of Fine and Applied Arts ushers in a new dean. Dean Hamilton was appointed Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation in February and is seeking a replacement.

As this develops, UIUC Musicians for a Better Orchestra has requested bi-weekly updates from the School of Music.


**This is a developing story.**


Updated May 22, 11:47 a.m. : An earlier version of this story was incorrect when stating “In response to the student’s refusal,” indicating that Watson’s response was to the quote preceding it when in fact, it was in response to a different student’s experience and retaliation.


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Michael Sweeney
Michael Sweeney, Assistant News Editor
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